Rich Lowry: The cult of Neil deGrasse Tyson
Neil deGrasse Tyson is a famous scientist. He even has a TV show. And wears a cool astronomical vest.
This simple truth has been established, over much resistance, by Sean Davis of the lively new conservative website the Federalist.
Davis dug into a handful of just-so stories repeated by Tyson in his public lectures, the point of which is to make himself — and by extension, his audience — feel superior to the dolts who aren’t nearly as scientific as he is.
The controversy centered on an erroneous George W. Bush quote that Tyson made a staple of his public presentations, and has come to settle on this question: Why was it so hard for a scientist committed to evidence and rationality to admit that he got something wrong?
In his speeches, Tyson would say that right after Sept. 11, Bush asserted the superiority of “we” to “they” (i.e., Muslim fundamentalists) by quoting the Bible for the proposition: “Our God is the God who named the stars.”
Tyson then would highlight the absurdity of this by noting that two-thirds of the named stars have Arabic names. Get it? The ignoramus Bush wanted to denigrate Muslims for their God not excelling at naming stars, when it was really the English-speaking Christian God who didn’t keep up.
Evidently, no one in Tyson’s audiences yukking it up over this story had any idea of Bush’s posture in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, when he famously went out of his way to vouch for Islam and to call for tolerance.
As Davis pointed out in his initial piece on the dubious quote, it really came from a tribute to the astronauts who died in the Columbia disaster in 2003. After quoting from Isaiah, Bush said, “The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today.”
When the indefatigable Davis queried Tyson about the provenance of his suspect material, the impressively factual scientist wrote an evasive, condescending reply on Facebook. He helpfully informed Davis that “the absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence.”
Really? When it comes to presidential speeches? Just because there’s an absence of evidence that Barack Obama said in a State of the Union address that he wants to nationalize the oil companies, it doesn’t mean he hasn’t said it?
This is such self-evident nonsense that Tyson was finally forced into apologizing, in a rambling, self-glorifying Facebook posting. His bullheaded gracelessness has extended down to his acolytes, who have worked to keep any mention of the controversy off his Wikipedia page. Tyson’s most intense fans are less skeptics than worshipers.
The attitude is captured in an episode of the Netflix show “Orange Is the New Black” by the protagonist, Piper Chapman, a sophisticated liberal who happens to land in prison. She avows to a group of obnoxious Christian inmates, “I believe in Nate Silver, and Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Christopher Hitchens.”
These are the high priests of rationality and secularism, and to question them is, from the point of view of the believers, heresy.
To be clear, it isn’t Tyson’s science that is the point of contention here. Who doesn’t want to listen to him talk about the Large Magellanic Cloud? The problem is the belief of his fans — encouraged by him — that science has all the answers; that anyone who believes in physics must adhere to a progressive secularism; that anyone not on board is guilty of rank anti-intellectualism.
Properly understood, science is a tool, an incredibly powerful one, but still just a tool. G.K. Chesterton wrote long ago, “Science must not impose any philosophy, any more than the telephone must tell us what to say.”
The Bush quote controversy reminds us that the self-styled champions of science are, like anyone else, prone to sloppiness, pomposity and error. Just don’t tell the adherents of the Tyson cult. It’s not polite to scandalize the faithful.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.